Guiding Principles in Prophetic Interpretation

Guiding Principles in Prophetic Interpretation—No. 1

True to the prediction given to Daniel concerning "the time of the end," the decades of the last century have seen much running to and fro in the field of prophetic investigation.


True to the prediction given to Daniel concerning "the time of the end," the decades of the last century have seen much running to and fro in the field of prophetic investigation. While right knowledge concerning the prophe­cies has been increased to a gratifying extent, there has also been a large amount of pur­ported interpretation of prophecy, in which so many variant positions are taken that mani­festly they cannot all be right. So, it is well to be reminded again that "no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation." And a reexamination of certain basic prin­ciples governing such study may be timely.

If private interpretations are not in order, it follows that from the same source from which the prophecies themselves first came, guiding principles making safe and correct in­terpretations possible to the earnest seeker for truth should also be forthcoming. It is the purpose of this article to seek to discover some of the most fundamental of those principles.

The necessary equipment on the part of the student would at least call for three factors:

1. The indwelling presence and enlighten­ment of the Holy Spirit. 1 Cor. 2:11-14.

2. A thorough acquaintance with the Bible. Mark 12:24.

3. A knowledge of the times, which implies as a minimum the main course of events and the great periods of world history. Rom. 13:11, 12; 1 Thess. 5:1.


For a personal fellowship with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who controlled the original writers of the Scriptures, and without which the things of the Spirit cannot be under­stood aright, certain attitudes of heart and mind are prerequisite. The proud heart, self-approbation, pride of one's own intellectual at­tainments, or love of acclaim, are each and all incompatible with Spirit guidance. On the other hand, God longs to give divine enlighten­ment to the contrite and humble soul who, distrustful of his own mental powers, asks in faith for wisdom from Him who "giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not." Then there will be a ready submission of heart and mind, a willingness to relinquish preconceived ideas and theories, with openness of mind, and a desire to be led by the Spirit into all the truth.

This preparation of heart will preclude that study of the Bible which is merely "for the purpose of sustaining our preconceived opin­ions," with the thought "that our own ideas and opinions are infallible."—"Testimonies to Ministers," p. 105. It will guard against two equally undesirable extremes: (1) "That a position once taken, an idea once advocated, is not, under any circumstances, to be relin­quished;" and (2) the untimely introduction of new views or interpretations that will cause dissension, before such views have had suf­ficient study to make sure they are both Biblical and important. (See Id., pp. 105, 106.)

While unorthodox and undenominational views are to be guarded against, there may also be such a thing as an orthodoxy that is the result of stagnation or mental death, rather than of intelligent and united study.

"Some have feared that if in even a single point they acknowledge themselves in error, other minds would be led to doubt the whole theory of truth. Therefore they have felt that investigations should not be permitted; that it would tend to dissension and disunion. But if such is to be the result of investigation, the sooner it comes the better."--Id., p. 105. (Cf. also "Testimonies," Vol. V, pp. 707, 708.)

The course to be pursued toward a brother who holds a view that seems to differ from one's own, is clearly indicated in the foregoing quoted message, closing with the warning, "There must be no spirit of Pharisaism cher­ished among us."—"Testimonies to Ministers," p. 107. It was largely because the Jews were blinded by preconceived ideas of the prophecies and their own choice as to how prophecy should be fulfilled, that they failed to recognize its fulfillment, and hence rejected their Messiah.

Another failure that will surely be studiously avoided by the Spirit-enlightened student of prophecy, is that of becoming so engrossed in the technicalities of history or symbolism, and details of minor importance, that the great spiritual lessons of soul-converting import are pushed aside or overlooked.


Given a converted soul with heart and mind surrendered to be led of the Spirit, the next in importance—and absolutely indispensable to a right explanation of prophecy—is an intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures. There is doubtless no more common cause for misappli­cation or misconstruction of prophetic utterances than the failure to examine the context, to take into account the times and circum­stances of the prophecy, or to recognize the general scheme of which the particular state­ment under observation is but a portion. Su­perficial reading, with shallow thinking, is the chief reason for some of the weird and fan­tastic applications made of fragmentary state­ments taken out of their setting and declared prophetic of some situation solely because of a fancied verbal or figurative likeness.

Whatever the motive may be, the perversion of the teachings of the Word is equally pro­ductive of confusion, whether by willful use of unsound reasoning or through inexcusable ignorance of what the Bible actually says. That the Bible should be its own expositor has long since been an axiom among Seventh-day Adventists (see "Testimonies to Ministers," p. 106); and yet even with us there would seem to be need of caution as indicated by these words: "Others, who have an active imagina­tion, seize upon the figures and symbols of Holy Writ, interpret them to suit their fancy, with little regard to the testimony of Scripture as its own interpreter, and then they present their vagaries as the teachings of the Bible."—"The Great Controversy," p. 521.

Next to that of the Bible as its own in­terpreter, might come the rule: "The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed."—Id., p. 599. It is usually quite possible to ascertain whether the prophet is using figurative or symbolic language; and when the usage is not very manifestly such, then it is safe "to assume that the literal mean­ing is His meaning—that He is moving among realities, not symbols, among concrete things like peoples, not abstractions."—"Old Testa­ment Prophecy," by Davidson, pp. 167, 168.

When, however, the language is unmis­takably of a symbolic or figurative nature, the next step is to find from other Scripture usage the clue as to the right interpretation of the symbol. Prayerful, honest, and diligent search will be rewarded. In the event of failure to find definite authority from the Bible or the Spirit of Proptedy for a particular application of prophetic language, surely positive or dog­matic assertions would be uncalled for. Nor should there be anything like personal resent­ment or the charge of rejection of light if others do not see the correctness of the view put forth.

The more closely the scheme of Bible proph­ecy is followed, the more will it appear that there is a beautiful consistency in the employ­ment of types, figures, and symbols. Again, the recognition of the cumulative or progres­sive development of the great lines of prophecy and the frequent use of parallelism wherein later prophecies are built upon earlier.—pass­ing from the more simple to the more complex unfolding of events,—might prove the key to problems otherwise difficult of solution. (See "The Great Controversy," pp. 343, 344.) These latter principles should be observed especially in the study of the book of Revelation, for "in the Revelation all the books of the Bible meet and end."—"The Acts of the Apostles," p. 585. "The things revealed to Daniel were afterward complemented by the revelation made to John on the isle of Patmos."—"Testimonies to Minis­ters," p. 114. Surely, then, our application of the symbols found in Revelation will not be entirely removed from the usage of like sym­bols found in the Old Testament prophecies.

A further principle to be observed especially in trying to teach to others the message of the prophets is that of simplicity. The theme of prophecy, which is the salvation of Jesus Christ, is deep enough to tax the profoundest thinker, yet it can be stated in such a way that the least learned can grasp it. Christ's success as the greatest of teachers, is attributed to the simplicity with which He taught the mysteries of the kingdom. (See "Gospel Work­ers," pp. 48-50.) The degree in which His colaborers maintain the same simplicity will be the measure of their success. (See "The Acts of the Apostles," p. 28.) "Never rise above the simplicity of the gospel of Christ." —"Gospel Workers," p. 355. Especially is simplicity enjoined upon those who lead out in the study of prophecy and history in our schools. (See "Testimonies," Vol. V, p. 525.)

Might it not be that much of the soul-saving and character-forming virtue of prophetic study has been sacrificed in crowding the mind with so much of the detail of history that is well-nigh irrelevant? Especially is this true when it comes to an understanding of certain prophecies dependent upon a mass of obscure data found only in dusty old tomes practically inaccessible to the layman, and that is un­known to the average, or even the educated, person. Can it be imagined that the Lord who pronounced a blessing upon those who read, hear, and keep the things written in the prophecy, intended that the understanding of it should depend upon technical historical data in the possession only of specialists in history?

"God gave to men the sure word of prophecy; angels and even Christ Himself came to make known to Daniel and John the things which must shortly come to pass. Those important matters that concern our salvation were not left involved in mystery. . . . Said the Lord by the prophet Habakkuk, 'Write the vision, and make it plain, . . . that he may run that readeth it.' The word of God is plain to all who study it with a prayerful heart."—"The Great Controversy," pp. 521, 522.

"The Lord will bless all who will seek humbly and meekly to understand that which is revealed in the Revelation."—"Testimonies to Ministers," p. 114.

"When we as a people understand what this book means to us, there will be seen among us a great revival."—Id., p. 113.

Angwin, California

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